Three decades ago, textile manufacturing was a major industry in Northeast Georgia. Dozens of plants dotted the local area.
Textile jobs were a major part of the South’s transition from an agrarian economy to one of industrialization and manufacturing in the post-Reconstruction era.
Today, few of those textile factories remain. The combination of automation and offshoring has taken most of those low-skilled, commodity textile jobs to other countries. What remains in the U.S. are high tech, heavily automated textile jobs that require a higher level of skills than the textile jobs of a generation ago.
Therein lies a larger story of how manufacturing in the U.S. has declined and of how difficult it will be to bring back the “millions” of industrial jobs as was promised during the recent election.
Moreover, this issue involves the broader concepts of Nationalism, Isolationism, Free Trade and Globalization, all buzzwords that float around our political culture like wasps waiting to sting.
A large number of Americans see the nation’s economic linkage with other countries as a threat. “Globalization” has become a dirty word. In its most extreme form, it has become the nexus of nutty conspiracy theories: That U.S. independence is being compromised by a “New World Order” blah, blah, blah.
But globalization isn’t something new, nor is it a conspiracy. Economic trade has been the focus of every major nation-state for thousands of years: The Silk Road, the Tea Route and the Spice Route were all early aspects of how nations trade goods with each other. Trade drove the era of exploration, leading to the discovery and settlement of the Americas by European powers.
And it was trade disputes — specifically taxes on imported tea — that led to the dawn of the American Revolution.
All of that was “globalization” in its early stages. Today, we’re linked with other countries not just by sea and land, but also with communications, finance, culture and other intangible exchanges. There is a huge amount of goods that move out of the U.S. to other nations, and the importing of goods from other nations.
But as with any economic exchange, there are always winners and losers along the way. Locally, the textile industry was hurt by the offshoring of production that began in the 1990s. At the same time, however, the local poultry industry has been bolstered by similar trade agreements that have allowed increased exports to other nations. One was a loser, the other a winner.
Following the recent election, there has been a lot of talk about modifying or ending much of this trade in a bid to force companies to re-industrialize in the U.S. But major re-industrialization is unlikely to happen on a grand scale. There are too many multi-national companies that have invested billions in plants and facilities around the world. They aren’t going to walk away from that.
And even if that were possible, the move would not “bring back” American industrial jobs as some believe. A Nationalistic-based economy would, in fact, probably throw the nation into a deep economic depression and would destabilize other nations, much to the detriment of the U.S.
The decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs isn’t a simple matter of bad trade deals as some claim. There are larger forces at work.
First, the economy here and in other industrialized nations is shifting from manufacturing to information. Intellectual capital has become just as important as machinery in this new economy.
Second, robotics and other automations are replacing cheap manual labor jobs. In the example of textiles, those businesses chased cheap labor in the 1990s as they fled to Mexico, China and other nations. Forcing them to come back to the U.S. wouldn’t automatically create a slew of new jobs. It would, instead, force high tech automation into those manufacturing plants because American labor is simply too expensive for low-skilled commodity manufacturing.
But there’s also the issue of unintended consequences. The entanglement of a world economy has been good in preventing the destabilization of other nations. That has perhaps prevented wars that might have happened if the economic consequences weren’t so terrible.
We have had small conflicts since 1945, but no more world wars.
That’s due in large part not to politics, but rather to the economic self-interest of the world’s leading powers because they’re so integrated by having trade relationships.
And on our own borders, imagine what would have happened with illegal immigration had Mexico not began to create a stronger economy from its trade with the U.S.
The creation of jobs in Mexico by American firms has raised the standard of living in that country and helped prevent what might have otherwise been a tidal wave of illegal immigrants into this country.
Having a successful, stable Mexico on our border is very much in the self-interest of the U.S.
Part of the problem in the U.S. with its economic doldrums in the Northern Rust Belt isn’t just that manufacturing has shifted to the South and to other nations. Also at play is a reluctance — maybe inability — by those who need jobs to adapt to this new information-based economy.
There are jobs available in the U.S., but many Rust Belt residents have not gotten the re-training they need to do them, nor have they relocated to areas where those jobs are available. Instead, they have adopted an attitude of victimhood and now want the government to solve their problems for them by recreating jobs from their past.
That’s unlikely. Northern industrial jobs dominated the U.S. for decades. High union wages in the North allowed for a level of economic wealth that those in the South couldn’t even dream about. And it was those same high union wages, especially in the auto industry, that eventually drove Northern manufacturing firms to seek cheaper labor elsewhere. The U.S. government cannot help people who don’t want to help themselves.
Trade deals led to economic Darwinism; adapt and survive, or become displaced.
That’s what many Northern Rust Belt residents don’t seem to understand. While they sit around complaining, people from other nations are moving here to take the jobs being created in our new information economy.
The white working-class of the Rust Belt resent that, as was evident in the election, but they are doing little to help themselves to adapt.
That white working class resentment won’t change the overall economic transitions taking place.
The free movement of people and their intellectual capital is necessary in this new information economy and will win out no matter what U.S. political policies are adopted in the coming years. One’s skin color or ethnic background or religious beliefs aren’t important, only the ability to function and adapt to this new economic system is what matters in the information age economy.
This country — and indeed all industrialized nations around the world — are going through a time of major economic transition as we adapt to this new information-based economic model.
Nations that adapt through education, training and flexibility will become the world’s next economic leaders.
Nations that resist and attempt to retrench with economic Nationalism and Isolationism will fail.
The old economic order is dead or dying. Bringing back millions of old manufacturing jobs to the U.S. to appease an angry white working class isn’t going to happen.
The Industrial Revolution is over and a new economic revolution is taking place.
We ignore that reality at our own peril.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.